COLUMN: Advice for the School Board from a social media expert

Monday, May 24, 2010 | 3:34 p.m. CDT; updated 11:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Columbia School Board appears to be intimidated by social media. So intimidated, in fact, that instead of adopting a policy for student/teacher interactions on social media, board members are waiting for more feedback on the proposed policy from students, teachers and parents.

I am not a school board member, student or teacher, but I am a social media expert. And by that I mean I'm under the age of 35 and have a Facebook account. 

My feedback: The members' hearts are in the right place, but the policy could use some extensive revision.

As a whole, the new policy is a lot like the old one. Only this time, it has bullet points. And redundancy. 
There are 17 items in the document regarding student-teacher interaction, plus three social media bullet points. Half of them are effectively identical.

For example, there are separate rules for "discussing sexual topics with students verbally or by any form of written, pictorial or electronic communication" and "telling sexual jokes or engaging in conversation that includes sexual innuendos verbally or by any form of written, pictorial or electronic communication." Apparently they anticipate wayward teachers using the notorious, "It wasn't a 'sexual topic;' it was a 'sexual joke' or 'innuendo!'" defense. 

My favorite part of the duplication is that, much like I padded my third-grade report on Delaware by spreading out three separate paragraphs in which I restated the encyclopedia entry for the state's bird (the Blue Hen Chicken), the folks behind this list tried to disguise their repetition. They made one point the seventh on the list and a similar one the tenth. Then the writers crammed a bunch of unrelated stuff between the two. It makes for some jarring transitions.

The whole list is scattered like that. It lurches wildly from sex to teachers playing favorites in class. It jumps from teachers' pets to teachers petting without warning. That, come to think of it, is the sort of move this policy is designed to prevent in the first place.

They have also amended vague references to "advances" to specific phrases such as "caressing, fondling or kissing students." Maybe the board is confident that if there's any group of people who will treat with respect the use of words such as "caressing" and "fondling" in an official document, it's high school students. 

While the 17 interaction points need to be reduced to about 10, they're fundamentally sound. Teachers shouldn't be making passes at students, planning future affairs with them, seeing them naked or sending them on personal errands. The social media part, however, needs work.

Point-by-point, it says district staff can't:

"1. Knowingly allow students access to the staff member's personal social networking website or webpage that discusses or portrays sex, nudity, alcohol or drug use or other behaviors associated with the staff member's private life that would be inappropriate to discuss with a student at school."

Call me prudish, but I'd amend that one to, "Any staff member with a website that portrays sex or drug use will be ridden out of town on a rail. As will the halfwit who hired him or her." It's less about social media and more about common sense.

While we're at it, let's switch "drug use" to "illegal drug use," just so we don't end up axing some poor dude who posted a shot of him swallowing low-dose aspirin.

As for the original intent of the rule, which seems to be, "Don't post anything online that you wouldn't say in class," I've got no problem with it. It's the sort of rule that should apply to everyone on the planet at all times. And by "everyone on the planet" I mean "especially that one dude on my Facebook feed." He knows who he is.

"2. Knowingly grant students access to any portion of the member's personal social networking website or webpage that is not accessible to the general public."

This is obviously code for, "Don't friend students on Facebook." It may seem as if this shouldn't matter as long as everybody's following the first rule and avoiding naughty photos and dirty jokes. But there's one element that undermines the whole thing: public friends lists. On many privacy settings, anyone can see your Facebook friends. And friending students on Facebook or any similar friends-only service sends just as many mixed signals as giving them preferential treatment in class, which is clearly prohibited in the main body of the policy.

"3. Post information about identifiable students on a personal website or webpage on a social networking site."

Much like those mentioned in the first point, teachers who whine about individual students on Twitter are exactly the sorts of folks who shouldn't have been hired in the first place. It seems silly to restrict teachers from re-tweeting something a student said or from linking to a student's excellent online portfolio, but this is one case where I have no problem throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But all these specific issues mask the larger picture: The Internet isn't a safe place. Protecting students from teachers is a critical step, but it's also a tiny one. The school board has taken teachers off the "people who are a threat on the Internet" list? Fantastic! That's a few hundred down, only 2.3 billion to go! 

The Internet is awesome in much the same way New York City is awesome. It's huge and full of epic highlights, but there are also plenty of sketchy areas and shady characters. And in the beginning, it's not always easy to tell which is which. Columbia Public Schools wouldn't turn kids loose in New York City without giving them a serious dose of street smarts first, and the Internet shouldn't be any different.

Andrew Van Dam was a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism. Now he's just a graduate.

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